Union and Separation, and the Crow’s Bumpy Flight
By Jonathan Chan
How Now Blown Crow
The title of Crispin Rodrigues' latest collection, How Now Blown Crow, is an invitation for comparison with the experimental work of Ted Hughes' Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow (1970). In the aftermath of the death of his wife Sylvia Plath, Hughes took to the mythical, trickster figure of the crow, having originally intended to craft an epic prose narrative with interspersed verses. It was in the crow that Hughes saw the possibility of a divine, austere figure that lingered over both creation and carrion, stretching across folktales in various traditions where the crow lingered as a spectral presence, including in Native American, European and Chinese myths. Hughes himself described his experiments as characterised by "super-ugly language", with the figure of the crow a conduit by which he could puncture the sheen of both humanism and Christian doctrine. Take, for example, Hughes' 'Crow Communes':
To Hughes, the presence of the crow figure delves in and out of the creative functions of God, intervening in instances of divine indolence or seeming incompetence. The crow must intervene by means of violent puncturing or metaphysical conciliation, contorting its chaotic energies to enact its own kind of divine power.
Just as Hughes' Crow poems signaled a shift in his poetic development, turning to engagements with mythical narratives and an unsparing, brutal language, so too does Rodrigues' Crow sequence function as a shift in his oeuvre. The collection is described as "a sequence of poems which follows the relationship between two divorcees starting a new life together after their respective marriages have failed." It is not particularly light subject matter and the poems fully reflect Rodrigues' engagement with questions of union and separation, leaving and making homes, and with the encroaching of middle-age. The front matter of How Now Blown Crow indicates its status as the conclusion to Rodrigues' trilogy of poetry collections, the previous two being Pantomime (2018) and The Nomad Principle (2019). Desmond Kon remarks that it could be read as a "triptych". Elsewhere, Marc Nair has commented that the collection
In How Now Blown Crow, Rodrigues invokes the figure of the crow not for its watchful presence in moments of creation, but in a precisely opposite moment: that of the destruction and dissolution encapsulated in divorce. Rodrigues' project is not obvious as its initial poems set up expectations of a predominant emphasis on the "exterior landscapes" Nair observes. 'Desertification', the first poem in the collection, intuits a symbol of the relational and emotional recession that occurs in the lead-up to a divorce. It concludes:
Subsequent to this, Rodrigues introduces the figure of the crow, in this case a "pilgrim crow". In doing so, Rodrigues moves from the previous associations of the crow with creation and destruction towards that of an ostensible divorcee, the crow invoked more for ornithological patterns of movement and migration than as a harbinger of life and death. 'Pilgrim Crow' is directed in second-person to the crow, stating:
Here the crow is a weary traveller, one compelled to make for itself a nesting place after failed attempts to do so in unsuitable environs. It is unclear if this is the same crow Hughes envisioned, or if the crow itself is symbolic of Rodrigues or a forebear of his. The impetus to "pass on / the word of the ocean" seems to suggest that the crow is a metaphor for an immigrant, encumbered with the challenge of remembering the difficulties of naturalisation. Given Rodrigues' previous engagements with his Eurasian heritage, it seems plausible that this might help to characterise the crow as a traveller more so than a trickster.
I begin with this attention to the image of the crow, as well as its entwining with creation narratives, if only to remark with some disappointment that it is largely abandoned hereafter. Rodrigues' set-up indicates consequent difficulties with retaining the entwining of landscape, crow imagery, and domestic decay and rebuilding as a single, focused, extended narrative. Rodrigues splits his collection into three sections: 'The Language of Exorcism', 'Fine Print' and 'Automatic Writing'. Each section features not only discrete, standalone poems, but also a series of poems titled 'Advice from the Old Country', ostensible sources of dating and marital advice that weave a culled wisdom and modes of superstition tied to courtship. The bulk of the other poems, however, are focused on the unravelling of a marriage, speaker shifting between husband and wife.
With regard to section headings, it is unclear in the first instance if it is the spirit of marriage or some other entity that is being "exorcised", and in the final whether processing the grief of separation fuels the ostensible "automatic writing" of the section. Of the three sections 'Fine Print' seems to provide the clearest indication of what its section focuses on – the minutiae of day-to-day marital life unexamined during the "contract" of marriage. Relatedly, the poems in the interspersed 'Advice from the Old Country' sequence sometimes struggle to move beyond the polyphony of interwoven comments the poet is sure to have reworked from interviews he conducted. Remarks on feng shui, Catholic piety or house management become launching pads for other musings, though some lines such as "Got fu qi one" or "These eggs / don't crack themselves" might elicit groans. It is also not apparent which "old country" the poet is referring to – within the framings of immigrant reference, would this refer to China, Europe, or even another part of an older Malaya? Given the historic formation of Eurasian communities in such parts of Malaysia as the Kristang in Malacca, more careful framing of these segments may have proven helpful.
If these headings can seem distracting, it's a shame as they obscure some luminous pieces of poetry, filled with well-observed and finely tuned images. Take for instance 'Homecoming':
Or even 'Habit Forming':
At his best, Rodrigues invests seemingly inconsequential facets of domestic life with a sensuous subtlety, portending the relational dissolution between his imagined couple. Other poems that achieve this great, aching sense of unravelling include 'Wallpaper', 'Succulent', 'Two Truths and a Lie' and 'Proxy'. The sense of gradual irreconcilability that plays out in these poems motions towards the fault lines of desire and intimacy resulting in marital breakdown. Their reliance on images common to the domestic sphere postures towards how they hint at a growing sense of private disorder.
Elsewhere, however, there remain difficulties in coming to grips with Rodrigues' weakness for puns, his investment in symbols that cannot bear the weight of the significance they are meant to hold, and the sometime discernible rush to conclude a poem. 'The North Has Been Kind' features a strange invocation of the kinds of paths birds may have flown, described as such: "Overhead are roads more than you know: pigeonroad, crowroad, koelroad, / ghostroad, angelroad". Rodrigues' kenning-like neologisms cannot help but elicit a groan in his attempts to sketch out the aerial pathways taken by birds and other airborne entities. In 'All Things Remaining Equal', a poem that deals largely with how the couple's domestic arrangements will be sorted out, it ends with "Mountains do not crumble / in our lifetime". It is a divergence that calls to mind other poems that feature natural imagery but seem to have little to do with the poem itself. 'Soliloquy' proceeds from a quote by James Joyce but seems to merely rearrange the words from the quote without any greater engagement. The poem 'Analytics' is muddled in linking the causes of the speaker's grandmother's death to divorce, while its title makes one wonder if the word has been misunderstood as a synonym of "analysis". 'Earthwiring' attempts to link metaphorical circuitry to cockroach killing. Baffling as well is 'Ornithology Field Notes', which is divided into five segments featuring poetic variations on different birds but seems not to tie back to the conceit of a crumbling marriage. The crow makes a reappearance as "That which / feeds on the dead".
In these instances, one wonders if the collection may have benefitted from a firmer editorial hand, one that pressed more intently on ensuring a thematic and symbolic tightness. Rodrigues' central conceit of a crumbling marriage is strong and moving, but his collection suffers from having too many poems that are variations on the same theme. Moreover, the potential of the images of receding landscapes and the omnipresent crow are muddied by other incursions. A whittling down of the total number of poems, including within the 'Advice from the Old Country' series, may have been necessary for each poem to land like a blow to the solar plexus.
At a broader level, the use of blank pages between poems is inconsistent – there aren't sometimes any seeming justifications for their use in spacing out the poems and, in others, there is a feeling that paper had been wasted. A noticeable error is also present in the poem 'There Is Room'; while the titles of other poems are presented capitalised, this title is underlined and in both uppercase and lowercase letters. There is also a typo toward the end of the book, with acknowledgments of poem's prior publications presented as 'Previous Published' rather than 'Previously Published'.
Within Rodrigues' collection lies a much stronger, tighter narrative of lost love. It is one where the strains of domestic life dance against the received wisdom of elders, where the frames of natural decay and the chaos of the trickster crow conjure feelings of heartbreak and malaise. It is one where the falling apart of a home, in all its emotional, temporal and material senses, is presented in unsparing terms. Rodrigues is a thoughtful writer and his best poems display honesty and introspection. One hopes that he will continue to hone his abilities into a much finer instrument.QLRS Vol. 21 No. 2 Apr 2022